I'm not quite sure why this is the time to start writing in this blog again, but now is better than never...
I recently bought myself an iPod - close enough to perhaps be a birthday present to myself. After years of wanting one, but not quite feeling like it was necessary it seemed like the time. Apple finally put out a (video) iPod and I wanted to play too. I got the 60GB version in black.
All the regular iPod goodness is there of course, but the real question is the video thing. Right now I have to say that it isn't much more than a nice trick - a toy. I ride the train to work, almost exactly the right amount of time for a one hour TV show - at least after the commercials are removed. It's a perfect time to watch TV. I can't comfortably read very much on a moving train - it tends to make me ill - but watching TV or movies is OK. I also managed to get a gift certificate to the iTunes Music (and video) Store right around the time that I got the iPod. Although I've been using iTunes for years, paying for overly pre-compressed music doesn't appeal to me very much. I dutifully bought the two part opener for Lost. It did serve to get me hooked on the show, but it also proved to me that watching video on the iPod isn't worth it to me.
The (video) iPod LCD is good, but not as good as the one on my PSP, and definitely not as good as my 15" Powerbook. It has some fundamental flaws. It's too small. The screen is a 4:3 aspect ratio instead of 16:9 at a time when everything is moving in that direction. And the worst, most crippling problem - the clear polycarbonate window over the LCD is very glossy, and great for reflecting glare. In my situation of watching on the train, I spent a lot of distracting effort trying to hold the iPod so that nothing would get in the way of the image. I'm used to sitting on the right side of the train and the right orientation to avoid direct glare on my Powerbook. It has a good anti-reflective coating, but the iPod is designed and manufactured to be as slick as possible. It's basically a mirror.
After that disheartening experience, I rented the rest of the first season of Lost on DVD and watched it at home on a circa 1992 CRT TV and on my laptop commuting to work. That was much better than the iPod.
Since Lost is so addictive I had to get the shows from this season. I've downloaded other stuff using bittorrent before, but getting the second season was going too slow. So it seemed like a good excuse to try ITMS again and get the new episodes legally. It's certainly more convenient than going to the video store or even waiting for Netflix, but it's ultimately only good when you're desperate for a fix. We watched the 5 available season 2 episodes on my Powerbook, and even on a good screen, the quality sucks. The colors are really off, the aspect ratio is wrong, and the compression artifacts are atrocious. Moving faces often get reduced to a single blob with no features. If you can live with the DRM, ITMS makes some sense for music in comparison with P2P networks, but with video, P2P wins on quality and choice. The typical versions that are available through P2P are compressed more than a DVD, but are much better than the crunched stuff on the ITMS. The only thing the ITMS has going for it is speed of download, but half of that is because the files are so crunched.
I suspect that video for the iPod will do OK, but it will not take off the way that the ITMS has for music. Certainly, when the next Lost is out, I'll be downloading it using bittorrent, not ITMS.
Instead of me repeating all the latest news in the Plain Layne saga, I will just direct you to the San Jose Mercury News. Surprisingly for a newspaper, even one used to stories about the net, they get the facts pretty much dead on.
I certainly had my doubts all along about Layne, but more than anything I just miss reading the stories. I hope that it all gets turned into a book.
A while back I wrote about one of my favorite blogs and how its writer, Plain Layne (AKA Sedalina) had briefly disappeared and reappeared. Well she's done it again. This time she's run away for a longer time. Who knows what happened.
My referrer log is now largely full of people looking for Layne Johnson on Google. I guess that's better than "Lara Croft's Boobs."
Rather than try tell the whole story, I will send you here. You'll have to wade through the long intro, but if you're a Layne fan or if you find slow motion train wrecks too hard to pull away from, you'll appreciate the link.
With the Google IPO looming, you would think that Silicon Valley and the rest of the world considers searching for things a fundamental mature technology, worth getting right. Indeed many of us spend much of our time online looking for things. Some recent experience has shown me that we're still far from the point where we can find anything we want at any time. In fact, if anything, recent technology is still trying to catch up to a little-known product that was actually a Hypercard stack starting in 1992.
My quest started innocently. The other day I was on my lunch hour at a new contract job, and I wanted to find the closest Wells Fargo ATM. I could have asked a stranger, but I thought I would try out that wonder of modern technology, the mobile phone coupled with the other wonder, the internet. Well WAP being what it is (crap!) I wasted 15 minutes of daytime airtime trying various ways of searching and finally gave up. The closest I could get was an address for a single Wells Fargo from Yahoo's directory - probably the main office - or Wells Fargo's web site which is worse than useless on a phone based browser. I am not a stupid person. I am an early adopter, a self-proclaimed geek with over a quarter-century of experience with computers - blah blah blah - yet I can't do something simple like find an ATM using my "mobile terminal".
After that demoralizing experience I asked a couple of cafe workers who had no idea, and then I gave in and went to the Bank of America and wasted $3 in extortion fees to get cash. I could have called 411 or looked online before going out, or even called the 800 number on the back of my bank card, but I felt like I should have other options. I know the technology is all there, it is just not being used. This is so broken. We have GPS integrated into our phones for E911 (that we are prevented from using), and we have had various web-based GIS for years, but something seemingly simple, like finding the nearest ATM is just not there.
The most insulting part of my experience is that Yahoo's "local info/yellow pages" section of My.Yahoo can't find anything for "Wells Fargo", and only comes up with unrelated info for "Wells", but somehow today I thought to search for "Fargo". Sure enough, I finally find some Wells Fargo offices with my phone browser. Gee that was intuitive - not!
For a control case for my experiment, I also tried my search again with a real web browser and a real internet connection. For some reason, while the WAP version of Yahoo just says "Not Found", the real Yahoo knows "Wells Fargo". What I did notice with interest in the process, is that Yahoo has added Smartview to their maps. Smartview adds checkboxes to show locations directly on the map for various businesses and services that you might want nearby: Food & Dining, Recreation & Entertainment, Community Services, Shopping & Services, Travel & Transportation, Financial & ATMs.
Smartview is fun to play with but I was quickly reminded of how far we have come and how far we have to go with these types of searches. Databases are notoriously full of incorrect information, and Smartview is no exception. I looked around my neighborhood, which I know very well. There are restaurants shown which are out of business, ones missing that have been around for years, incorrectly shown locations, etc. This is not a new problem, and it is not surprising. The ATM view doesn't even begin to cover all the major banks' office locations which include ATMs, let alone stand-alone major ATMs or third-party ATMs.
Yahoo is not a dumb company. I'm sure that they have armies of people involved in this project, but they are doing a really poor job of reproducing something that four people and some volunteers produced back in 1992 for restaurants in San Francisco - right about the time the web was being invented. The Digital Restaurant Guide (DRG) was a Hypercard stack that was distributed on four floppies. Later, it was ported to the web. The web archive has bits of it, but it doesn't do justice to the Hypercard version.
It covered as close as possible all 3000+ restaurants in San Francisco, not just the obvious popular ones. What they discovered back then, and I sure it is still true, is that there is no good centralized source of information about things like restaurants. It changes too fast. They started with existing guidebooks, the Yellow Pages (remember them?) and city business listings, and then they drove all over the city looking for more. The database included reviews, types of food, hours, etc. One seemly simple thing that I have yet to see reproduced elsewhere is a map view showing the restaurants that are open right now. Of course hours are much more variable at restaurants than phone numbers or addresses, but it was still an amazing tool. Part of what kept the DRG accurate was that its users would email them with corrections. I'm sure that Yahoo will do the same, but they need to work on this aspect.
On the regular web, Citysearch or the San Francisco Chronicle's SFGate have become my default choices for Bay Area restaurant searching, but remarkably, neither is as complete as the DRG was, nor do they have as useful of a map view as the DRG. And worst of all, Citysearch is so bloated and awkward, that I'm sure that the DRG on my 25MHz 68020 Powerbook could do rings around Citysearch on my 800MHz G4 Powerbook on a T1 connection. The problem of course is figuring out how to make a service that is useful enough to attract enough eyeballs, and then figuring out how to monetize those eyeballs. Even the 800lb gorilla, Microsoft, tried and failed with Sidewalk (one of the few projects that Microsoft has ever been involved with that I really liked). The sad part is that in researching this post, I discovered that Mark Beaulieu, the man behind the DRG, turned that into the USRG (US Restaurant Guide) which claims to cover "every restaurant in the USA" but it feels like a ghost town. The good news is that he's been involved with mobile phone applications for a number of years. Maybe something good will come of all this.
Maciej Ceglowski writes in the "about me" section of his blog: "I was born in Poland, in 1975, but have been living in the USA since I was very little. Although I still speak the language with my mother, and have family in and around Warsaw, I'm as American as gooseberry pie." I don't believe it. I wish more Americans could speak and write at least one language properly, let alone two or more, and possessed even a fraction of his sardonic wit.
A recent entry finds him in Warsaw on the eve of Poland entering the European Union. I only wish there was more writing like this in our newspapers and magazines. Some of the best (and worst) writing is on the fringes.
I've just come to and joined a party that has been going on for about two or three decades, depending on how you measure it. Genetic Algorithms are an attempt by computer scientists and AI researchers to mimic the way that evolution works. The idea being that certain kinds of problems are very hard (read: nearly impossible) to solve in a purely absolute manner (the "Traveling Salesman," for instance) but by mutating and recombining the best candidates from each generation of solutions, a very good solution can emerge quickly without excessive pain in programming or computer horsepower. This much I vaguely knew at a theoretical level. These ideas had come out of research into cellular automata, which is something that I first encountered in 1986 or so in the form of Conway's Life.
What I didn't do was actually play with any GA programs until very recently. What I have since realized, is that there is an amazing difference between reading about certain ideas, and actually experiencing them. That shouldn't be surprising, but given that I try to read about a lot of techy stuff and keep up with it, I often rely on other people's writing rather than first-person observation and interaction. Unfortunately "getting it" and having those "aha" or "wow" moments usually requires the first-person experience.
One way that I have experienced novel bits of tech instead of just reading about them is to go to Dorkbot-SF meetings. Dorkbot is an international organization of geeks which bills itself as "people doing strange things with electricity". The SF chapter has a lot of SRL crossover seeing as Karen Marcelo started it. At the most recent meeting, Rudy Rucker and Scott Draves (AKA Spot) spoke. Rudy managed to make Stephan Wolfram's a New Kind of Science seem both a little more interesting and at the same time take some of the wind out of Wolfram's sails - but that is a another story.
Scott showed off his Spotworks DVD and some of the software used to create it. To call Electric Sheep just a screensaver is an oversimplification. This software uses distributed computing to create and render animated particle effects sequences which are developed over time using genetic algorithms controlled by all the users. Now you've just read my description, but you really have to go look, or even better actually install Electric Sheep to see what this is all about.
Scott started a blog recently, and he happened to post about Kandid. It's another piece of software which I have spent far too much time with and it is related to Electric Sheep. It has a 14 different types of image generation techniques including the Flame plugin that Scott wrote, and like Electric Sheep it uses GA to develop new parameters to feed into the image generators. Also like Electric Sheep, the GA fitness function is the human controlling the software, although in this case it is one human at a time and the images are static, not animated. It's written in Java, which is good and bad - it runs on many platforms, but it isn't as fast or as native looking as it could be. And on a Mac at least, the installation procedure is a bit weird.
Despite all of that, interacting with it is an easy way for me to kill hours of time and create images that I wouldn't create on my own, yet they still come out of my creative input. I suppose that I also loved playing with Spirographs as a kid, so who knows...
What I do get out of the process is a newfound awareness that the design and creativity process can be thought of as an evolutionary one. There are times where you need to throw in random tweaks, and other times where you need to carefully evaluate and combine the best of different trains of thought. I wish that more problems where easy to parameterize and turn into something that can be uniquely described with a "gene". I use 3D CAD software on a daily basis and I would love it if there were ways to evolve new forms for industrial design. I'm searching around for examples of work on this front, but I'm not finding much of interest.
Many years ago John Dvorak used to write interesting columns (kinda like Jerry Pournelle). Unfortunately, he's become a bit of an entrenched fossil. This latest article is about a year out of date.
In a related story, I got an email recently from a reporter at the San Jose Mercury News who wanted to chat about moblogging for an article. In the end I didn't get quoted or mentioned, but the result is vaguely interesting. Nothing too surprising.
It amazes me how slow the tech writers and the public in the US are picking up on this. Something like 90% of the mobile phones on the market in Japan have integrated cameras, and it seems that people here are just coming to. Sure, not everyone is going to moblog, but it amuses me when tech savvy writers have to explain the concept of a phone with a camera on it over and over.
After reading an article in the SF Chronicle about benefits issues for newly wed same sex couples, it occurs to me that there may be some very interesting tech issues coming up. I'm very happy to live in San Francisco which has been ground zero for the same-sex marriage fight. I'm looking forward to equality for all, but I wonder what kinds of hidden problems will come up when same-sex marriages become legal? Much like the work that had to be done before the year 2000, I suspect there are a lot of hidden assumptions in many databases around the world. How many systems out there have some "sanity" check to see that spouses are of opposite sexes? I doubt this will be anywhere near as big of a problem as Y2K, but I bet there will be some surprises.
I've already posted in the past about my Verizon LG VX6000. In general it has been reliable and it does what I need and some of what I want. Recently though, it developed a hairline crack in the hinge right where the status LED (actually a lightpipe for the LED) is located. I'm usually very careful with my belongings - people look at my books or CDs and think they're new even if I've used them for years. I've probably dropped the phone once or twice in the 6 months or so that I've had it, but not recently. I can't think of any trauma that I've caused my phone before the crack appeared, just wear.
Pre-fracture, the only damage to the phone was cosmetic. The silver paint was wearing off of the battery and the side of the phone, the chrome plating was wearing off the side buttons, and the coating on the external display window flaked off in one small area. I have to admit that this is probably all as a result of carrying it in my pocket with coins, and sometimes keys. Fine. That I sort of understand, although I really have to wonder why anyone designs a product that gets handled constantly with coatings that can wear off. Basically nothing on the phone is a solid, self-colored material. As ludicrous as the mirror-finish buffed stainless steel is on the back of the iPod, at least when it gets scratched, it's still stainless steel.
I monitored the crack on the phone with trepidation, but at the same time, I had a Motorola StarTac for years that had several serious looking cracks and it kept on going until the buttons and display back light died. A couple nights ago I flipped open the phone and the hinge literally exploded. Not exploded as in flames, but a small piece of plastic flew off and I couldn't find it. The phone still worked but opening and closing it was a delicate proposition. What was left of the hinge looked very brittle. I also knew that trying to physically repair the hinge area was unlikely to work or look good. I looked around and found the warrantee and it was still under a "1 year manufacturer's warrantee" which pleasantly surprised me.
I do product engineering for a living. Personally I wouldn't design a high stress area like the hinge with a (relatively) big hole in it. To me, the fact that the crack developed under normal use, and it also exploded under normal use is a sign of bad engineering, or perhaps bad process control in the molding which resulted in higher than anticipated molded-in stresses. In other words I expect that Verizon and LG will see a lot of failures at the exact same point, which should trigger some sort of replacement policy and redesign.
The next day I went to the Verizon office on my way to work. I quickly discovered that the "warrantee" doesn't really cover much. The regular customer service representatives couldn't do anything. The manager came over and told me even he couldn't do anything, but if I brought the phone back to the Verizon office where I bought it, I could get a refurbished model for free.
While I wasn't exactly happy with having to backtrack past home and then go to the other office in the city, I needed my phone to work and I didn't want to buy a new one or switch to a cheaper model. I jumped in a cab and went to the other office. After a bunch of back and forth with them the best they would offer me was a refurbed phone for $50. I should have argued more, but I was fed up and late for work so I accepted.
When they replace a phone in a situation like this they do transfer your address book over (or so it seems - more later) but all your other settings and your pictures, downloaded applications, ringtones, etc., go bye-bye. At this point I really wished that I had gone through the steps to back this stuff up, which isn't exactly an officially supported operation. I didn't have that much on my phone, but still, it was a disappointment to loose that stuff because Verizon can't manage to have the technology that the hacker community has.
No sooner than I was out the door and the phone was ringing while I was in the middle of trying to go through it to get everything back the way that I like it. I was also trying to hail another cab. In the midst of all that confusion I managed to tell myself that the fact that the side buttons didn't seem to work was probably as a result of some new option or something. Nope. I got to work and fiddled some more and couldn't find any good reason for the buttons not working. So I call the closest Verizon store again and ask them if they can explain the malfunction. Nope, must be a bad phone. They offered to do the replacement, but I figured I wouldn't take the chance of being sent back to the other store so I just went to the one where I had done the exchange earlier.
At this point I was not happy. I think one of the things I said during my rant was something like "I shouldn't have to do quality control for Verizon" and the service rep politely said "you're right". He managed to get me another phone quickly for free. I was almost out the door, but I noticed that the latest refurbed unit was missing the rubber cover for the USB cable connector. When I went back to get it, he said "don't you have the car charger?" as if that was a good reason to not have that part. I'm sorry but no, I don't - actually I really don't need it because the battery lasts so long - and even if I did, I don't need pocket lint clogging up the connector.
Here's a quick lazy post - some of my favorite new (or new to me) blogs:
So Google is apparently getting into the Friendster business. Along with all the other social networking software that is out there they think there is room to add another. The beta is called Orkut after the Stanford grad and current Google employee that started the project.
Far be it for me to make fun of someone else's name since I endured much teasing as a child for mine, but Orkut just doesn't roll off the tongue in English as a pleasant cozy sounding place to meet new friends. If this is indeed a serious project at Google I strongly recommend that they rename the thing.
Google is a quirky, geeky name, but it somehow worked as a brand and is so popular that it is in danger of becoming a generic term. Somehow, I just can't imagine people saying "Hey Orkut me a message dude", or "She's my best Orkutster".
When I was younger finding new music that I liked seemed easier. Commercial and college radio introduced me to all kinds of stuff that I still love. These days I can't stand to listen to radio. Commercial radio is completely worthless except for the occasional late night set when they play more songs than commercials and they don't play the same 5 songs. College radio still plays bits of brilliance, but I can't structure my life around their schedules. In these days of everything on demand I have lost patience for the broadcast model of shows only being available in realtime. There are some internet radio stations that manage to be more consistently listenable, thus alleviating my frustration with the realtime nature, however it's a rare surprise to hear something new that I love which jumps out with a unique personality. With net radio I end up listening to audible techno wallpaper.
Maybe because it is suspiciously similar to a lot of the early '80s new wave that I still love, the whole Electroclash thing has buoyed my feelings about music over the past year or so. In New York it was apparently the trend of the minute about two years ago, but it seems to be largely under the radar otherwise.
I do occasionally find new stuff surfing around on the net. Going through 20somethings' blogs and profiles is a good way to find out what's cool. I think that is how I picked up on Ladytron - easily the best band for me of the past year.
There was a point to this... oh yeah... on Heavy.com they've got a bunch of cool videos including one for Client. You can also go to Client's web site and pick up a few free MP3s or watch more video. While they aren't going to replace Ladytron for me, I was very happy to find them.
Which reminds me...
About two months ago I was in NYC and while in a painfully trendy boutique in the East Village (I wish I could remember the name) I heard something that I instantly knew I had to have. I asked the guy behind the counter what it was and without a word or much in the way of facial movements he acknowledges my question and hands me the CD case. I guess in his eyes I was either too old or too obviously not a city resident to even talk to. The band turned out to be Electronicat and the CD was 21st Century Toy. Fortunately I wrote it down because I didn't quite remember the name right. I ended up ordering it used through Amazon. Not quite instant gratification, but I was happy. It's a fantastic, quirky CD.
I've been meaning to post about this since I first saw it.
Charles Weever Cushman, amateur photographer and Indiana University alumnus, bequeathed approximately 14,500 Kodachrome color slides to his alma mater. The photographs in this collection bridge a thirty-two year span from 1938 to 1969, during which time he extensively documented the United States as well as other countries.
Indiana University's Digital Library Program and the Indiana University Archives invite you to explore what Cushman saw. Here you can view his photographs as well as read contextual information about Cushman's life and work.
What is interesting is that even though he wasn't necessarily the most impressive photographer from an artistic or technical standpoint, he did start using color slide film fairly early, he consistently took a lot of pictures and he documented them better than most people. The photos sat around for a while in the university's archives for many years. It's only with some historical distance that these seemingly pedestrian photos started to take on some significance.
From a personal perspective, I like looking at the pictures of places that I've been to or lived in - it is fascinating to see what life looked like to an ordinary person. We start to remember the past through movies and books of professionally taken images. This is the past unfiltered. Search for "haight" and look at the pictures of "hippies" on the Haight in 1967. While there is certainly a ce plus ça change, ce plus c'est le même chose feeling for anyone who has visited the Haight in the last 35 years, I do notice that the shoes are different. It's a small detail, but despite all the kids that want to dress like it is still the '60s or the '70s, they wouldn't get that detail right. Movies from that time period tended to over-exaggerate the outfits.
The collection isn't exhaustive enough to really represent the whole of what was - in this case there are only 29 pictures in the series - but it does provide a glimpse that is inarguably representative of a particular day and place, in a way that a staged movie or carefully composed professional photo never is.
So WTF is going on at Salon? Judging by their latest cover stories, it seems like the editorial direction has gone off the deep end. Today's lead story about dinosaur rock really clinched it for me. Earlier this week there was this little thing where we finally captured Saddam Hussein. As much as I hate Bush and think he might have even timed the announcement for maximum benefit, I'm shocked that Salon has just passed on this story altogether (ignoring the AP stories - those don't count).
It used to be that Salon would break important stories and provide important insights. It seems like they are just so far from being profitable that they cannot manage anymore.
I've read Customer-owned Networks: ZapMail and the Telecommunications Industry before, and perhaps you've seen it, but this essay is really crucial to understanding what will happen with the mobile phone carriers.
Right now they are concentrating on selling services at the expense of rebates and incentives on hardware, but I think that model is ultimately flawed.
It's similar to the reason that Apple gets it with the iTMS and other companies that are trying to rent music don't get it.
If you charge for services you have to make them make economic sense. Verizon charges me $5/month for unlimited picture messaging. Then my phone takes at minimum 9 button presses (more like 12-15 after selecting the picture and the recipient - that's without even giving it a name or subject!) to send each picture message, which I have to do one at a time. As a consequence I'm discouraged from actually using the feature. It also encouraged me to look into ways to get the pictures off my phone directly, thus circumventing Verizon's revenue model.
I haven't actually done it yet, but it seems that I can spend about $30 for a USB cable, download some freeware and then grab pictures off my phone in bulk with a couple mouse clicks in a couple minutes instead of waiting and waiting for the pictures to be sent over the air and the zillions of key presses just to send the damn things. Plus I avoid the ridiculous charges.
The carriers and the phone manufacturers think that people will primarily send photos one at a time to other mobile phone users, in which case $.25 a message and a dozen key presses doesn't seem that bad, but if you start to use your phone more like a camera, the model breaks down. Real digital cameras only cost money per use if you actually print pictures, and even the worst desktop software doesn't require anywhere near the number of interactions to download twenty pictures.
Basically people don't like trolls. It's not a very good business model. Users will figure out ways to route around them.